Fantasies are for the Weak [or, Watching Telenovelas in Bosnia]

Apocalypse, Telenovelas

My grandmother, Baba Jela, changed after the Bosnian civil war. Before the shooting began, her stories and songs were ordinary, positive, life-affirming, with a clever hero or good-natured idiot overcoming challenges and a greedy foe soon reduced to pitiful scrub. But after a war of nearly 100,000 deaths, Baba turned her stories and lullabies dark and horrifying.

It was impossible for Baba Jela to indulge in fantasies for more than a couple of minutes at a time. If her thin and almost translucent lips stretched in a smile for too long, instinct would shove her pitilessly back into reality. And Baba Jela made sure to yank the others around her from their self-serving delusions, too, which made her a dreaded guest during the neighborhood’s daily telenovela gatherings and discussions.

Escapism was a necessary after the war in Bosnia. People’s worlds had not just been turned upside down, but tossed and kicked in the air, spun and rolled, hurled towards an uncharted region. To forget about the two constants in their lives, fear and frustration, Bosnians drank a lot of alcohol, listened to a lot of turbo-folk, and sought comfort in the age-old truths and categorical justice of Latin working-class melodramas which inundated Balkan televisions during the 1990s.

In our town, five different families chipped in to purchase a 12-inch, black and white television on which we could watch Kassandra, a telenovela in which our favorite gypsy maiden Kassandra and her handsome beloved Luis David consistently prevail over the Luis David’s greedy twin brother Ignacio and his evil stepmother Herminia. Every afternoon at four o’clock, in the cold basement of our neighbor’s house (where we kept our communal TV and the only space that could fit all eighteen of us), we would invariably assume the same positions: the elderly on chairs in the front row and children strewn on the freezing concrete floor, on all sides.

Afraid that we would be inadvertently kicked, stepped on or salivated upon during the suspenseful moments, each kid usually kept one eye on the screen and the other on our excitable and demonstrative elders. Their faces contorted with every scene and their eyes beseechingly following Kassandra’s every move; some of the more passionate watchers even cursed and threatened the evil characters, and warned our heroine whenever she found herself in peril.

Our show was a pirated version because the Bosnian TV station lacked the resources to buy it, and one day Kassandra abruptly disappeared. Pitying, or perhaps even fearing what the wretched souls of a warn-torn country might do if their only hour of tranquility was stolen, the U.S. State Department intervened to restore the show. With the generosity of Antonio Paez of Coral Pictures, all 150 episodes of Kassandra were donated to Bosnian watchers and hundreds of thousands of people appeased.     

Baba Jela was not. She looked disparagingly at all those who were captivated by telenovelas, as if they were too mentally feeble to take on the depressing details of life in post-war Bosnia without resorting to fantasy. She refused to accept the convenient half-answers to life’s toughest questions that Kassandra offered. Therefore, whenever she joined us in our neighbors’ basement, Baba Jela would heckle the actors, sigh loudly, and laugh sarcastically to remind everyone that the justice meted out on TV would never happen in real life.

However, during one of the last episodes of the series, as Baba Jela clapped her hands and covered her mouth in disbelief that we could drink in such nonsense, another grandmother, Baba Smilja, gave her a reproachful look and said: “We know it’s fake, Jela. Just leave us alone already.” Baba Jela shrugged her shoulders, but watched the rest of the episode in silence.

 

Baba Jela's song:

In a poor part of a city,

A rich man does not linger,
Unless he strayed off his path,
Or has heard of a bosomy folk singer.

In a poor part of a city,
A rich man will acknowledge your existence,
Only if you can kick a football well,
Or if he is in need of some depraved assistance.

In a poor part of a city,
A rich man will shake your hand,
If you have long legs and a pretty face,
Or if he needs a drudge to tend his land.


For all the other reasons,
Rich man stays with rich,
So if you see him smiling at you,
He wants you to become his bitch.

 

Blog post courtesy of Milan Djurasovic, a Bosnian American collage artist, blogger, and book author. He currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia. His educational background is in psychology and history.

 

Image by Rebecca Walthall